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Approches disciplinaires pour des études avatariales

Challenging the asymmetry of online interactions between humans and avatars in an online video game space: a unique example of relative independence and autonomy

Jacques Ghoul Samson
Traduction de Kaylen Baker
Cet article est une traduction de :
Questionner l’asymétrie des interactions entre humains et avatars dans un espace de jeu vidéo en ligne : singularité d’une relative indépendance et autonomie [fr]


Are avatars simply a vehicle of sorts, allowing us to move about in an otherwise inaccessible digital world? The present article intends to challenge the standard conceptualization of this particular figure by offering a different vision. Through research based on interactionism and data collected from an ethnography, it is possible to go beyond the conventional, asymmetrical understanding of the avatar figure and consider it as an entity unto itself, having a certain degree of independence and autonomy.

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Texte intégral

Introduction: asymmetrical spaces connected via avatars

1The concept of an avatar, when viewed from a theological, literary, or technological perspective, is routinely associated with an asymmetry between two spaces: the location of the entity who has taken possession of an avatar to manipulate it remotely (the transmission space), and the location where the avatar is situated (the receiving space). This asymmetry has been linked to the idea of avatars ever since the Hindu origins of the term, when an “avatar” denoted a body taken over by a divine entity in order to interact with and operate on the mortal world. This asymmetry is also found in popular culture, both in literature (Stephenson, 1994) and film (Cameron, 2009). In all of these instances, the avatar has been used to designate unequal relations between different worlds, in which the transmission space can disrupt the receiving space without ever experiencing any repercussions.

2When narrowing in on avatars evolving within digital spaces and analyzing the relevant academic literature, a more in-depth and detailed understanding of this figure emerges. In studies where the avatar only occupies a secondary, almost accidental place, the researcher has maintained the perspective of an avatar as a vessel permitting movement in a space defined by a particular physicality (Boellstorff, 2008; Nardi, 2010). But the avatar can also take center stage and be at the forefront of a researcher’s investigation. In these cases, the avatar no longer appears as a neutral entity whose sole purpose is to enable movement for the person manipulating it. Whether the avatar is perceived as a mask, a puppet (Georges, 2009, 2013), or a doppelganger (Auray, 2004), it influences interactions and relationships between the individuals who manipulate it. Like a costume or a disguise, it modifies the way in which individuals see themselves (Yee & Bailenson, 2007), and consequently, the way in which they communicate and engage.

3However, while this research encourages us to consider the avatar as an interface which leaves some trace of itself on the interactions taking place between individuals, rarely does it question the relationship between the spaces that the avatar connects, nor does it challenge the idea of asymmetry between these spaces. Therefore, we might ask ourselves if it is possible to think beyond this asymmetrical framework. Can we transcend it? To gauge the importance of this asymmetry, attention was placed on reference points used by the avatars and the users manipulating them. If avatars are able to come together and engage in conversation by constructing a set of meanings that belongs wholly to themselves and does not rely on elements coming from the transmission space, then avatars could be said to have a form of independence and autonomy in relation to the user. The question then becomes: in what way are avatars able to build their own frame of reference, freed from the transmission space—in this case, the space inhabited by the user who manipulates them?

4To address this question, two main tools had to be utilized: first, a theoretical tool built around symbolic interactionism, which would allow me to study the “order of interactions” (Goffman, 1991) carried out in a digital setting. This analysis grid should help me determine if the interactions taking place between avatars in a digital space do in fact lead to establishing rituals which contain a social function (Durkheim, 2014; Goffman, 1974), enabling a group’s cohesion by establishing a set of conventions. Next, in order to collect necessary field data for this analysis grid to function, a semi-participatory ethnography of different groups of avatars was conducted over the course of thirty months, from 2016 to 2018, within the World of Warcraft online video game space.

5To explain these elements further, I will organize this article into three main parts. First, I will present the hypothesis on which my approach is based, as well as the theoretical apparatus assembled in order to carry out the research. Next, I will briefly describe my fieldwork and the subsequent ethnography conducted. Lastly, I will discuss the results that emerged from this research, which led to a new perspective on avatars as entities displaying a form of independence and autonomy, insofar as they interact primarily by referring only to their own space, and, more importantly, because they create their own rituals.

Hypothesis and theoretical context: interactionism, ritualization, and independence

6Up until this point, any reference to the avatar has been based on a common understanding of this term. However, this understanding has proved insufficient when conducting a study centered around this figure. After outlining the hypothesis which this present study is based on, a new definition of the avatar will be contextualized, in order to move on to the theoretical context structuring the interpretive framework adopted for this research.

Hypothesis: digital space as a new world

7If, as Fanny Georges (2013) has demonstrated, the nature of the avatar is to be a medium between two spaces, then it a protean entity. It could equally be summed up as a set of gestures made by a finger toward or on a screen, such as swiping, pinching, and scrolling, or the embodiment of a particular character navigating a complex narrative thread (such as a player embodying Lara Croft in an opus of Tomb Raider). However, among this set of possibilities, the avatar’s most complex and profound form seems to be found in what is called a ‘massively multiplayer online role-playing game’ (MMORPG). In these particular spaces, avatars can be largely customized and join a narrative thread in which they are the heroes, meaning they can direct and shape the storyline according to their decisions.

8Research on these particular spaces, MMORPGs, is extensive, and transcends discipline categorization by addressing various themes. Researchers can investigate the link between users of these spaces (Berry, 2012), the skills that users can develop through their experiences within these spaces (Chollet, 2015), or even identity experimentation (Bessière et al., 2007). Among these various studies, Edward Castronova’s approach stands out for its originality. He was one of the first researchers to propose an analysis grid that looks beyond the merely playful aspect of the space he analyzes. From an economic perspective, he posits that the digital space (the receiving space) produces its own system, one that can be studied separately as its own space distinct from its counterpart physical space (the transmission space, in my approach). From this jumping-off point, the author attempts to demonstrate that the digital space has a certain form of independence from the physical space (Castronova, 2005, 2007), insofar as the monetary value system of goods and services is no longer tied to aspects issuing from the physical space, but rather is constructed solely in regard to commodities available in the digital space. This perspective makes it possible to calculate a set of economic indices (GDP, GDP per capita, etc.) for each digital space with its own designated currency, as long as the digital space has a large enough population and a certain longevity.

9Castronova’s economically-oriented theory seemed potentially applicable to communication and interactions as well. In concrete terms, this means that my approach involves testing a hypothesis which suggests that interactions and exchanges carried out in the digital space can be done independently of the physical space, that is to say, without having recourse to elements coming from this physical space. The same could be said for inhabitants of these spaces. Thus, through interactions, I believe it is possible to consider avatars as entities distinct from users (the ones who manipulate the avatars). Going forward, I will use three terms to designate the interactants (entities involved in interactions) in this research:

a) avatar: an inhabitant of the digital space

b) user: an inhabitant of the physical space

c) individual: referring indiscriminately to an avatar and/or user

10This hypothesis may be considered valid if, upon analyzing the results, it is concluded that avatars create rituals over the course of their interactions. Indeed, according to symbolic interactionism, this particular form of interaction is evidence of having achieved a functional role.

Operationalized interactionism

11As previously mentioned, interactionism occupies a central place in the methodological framework put in place to carry out this research. While the term “interactionism” can refer to a perspective deeply rooted in the works of Hume and Mead (Bonicco-Donato, 2016; Hume, 2015; Mead, 2006), only around the time of the Chicago School’s second generation (Joseph & Grafmeyer, 2009) did this branch of sociology begin to blossom, bringing about a body of research that relies on the study and analysis of interactions (Becker, 2012). However, it was Erving Goffman’s writings (1973a, 1973b, 1987) that truly allowed this branch of sociology to solidify as a theory. Nevertheless, this theorization still has its weak points, namely, that it was primarily constructed around one context: the great wave of urbanization which swept across the United States of America during the 1960s and 1970s. At the turn of the second millennium, when digital spaces began to appeal to individuals and researchers, interactionism’s urban anchoring must have looked like an insurmountable obstacle.

12In order to align this study (conducted in and around a digital space, with protean actors who oscillate between avatar and user) with this theoretical branch, it is important to discuss how it manifests and operates, so that an analysis might easily follow from it.

  • 1 Émile Durkheim offers a functional analysis of the waning role of religion in society, according to (...)

13Interactionism is marked by its contextual anchoring, and Goffman’s writings are no exception to this pitfall, especially since his theorization—while remaining the most successful within this branch—is based on the detailed analysis of scenes from everyday life. His approach is doubly situated, both in time and (physical) space. However, insofar as the author’s ambition was to understand the pacification of morals brought about by moving from a state of nature to a state of culture after the decline of the role of religion in society, which invalidated Durkheim’s conclusion,1 Goffman’s work has a decidedly all-encompassing scope. Consequently, the approach I adopted in order to adhere to his vision of interactionism involved identifying his core principles, which I could use to transcend the spatiotemporal anchorage in which they were first produced.

14By drawing on Goffman’s desire to understand the process of mutual sacralization at work in interactions, a sacralization which functions to produce coherent social groups, I was able to identify three constants in his thinking (Ghoul Samson, 2019).

  • Ego: this refers to the individual, who occupies a central role, as well as their way of presenting themselves across a series of “roles” or “facets” in order to carry out interactions.

  • Alter: the interaction is based on cooperation (active or passive) between several interactants. Depending on the perspective adopted to study a given interaction, an individual will be the ego of the interaction and the other participants the alter.

  • Place of interaction: sometimes used to gain personal advantage or simply to ensure the separation of roles, the interaction space is not insignificant, especially when this space is digital.

15These elements not only move beyond the original limitations of Goffman’s writings and philosophy, but have been extracted from their production context, rendering them applicable as an interpretive framework for analyzing interactions taking place in any context. They appear just as relevant to the study of World of Warcraft interactions in 2018 as they must have seemed in the 1970s, when Goffman was studying interactions in Chicago. These three elements will serve as pillars for my analysis of interactions, in order to test my hypothesis.

An introduction to the videogame field and the present research methodology

World of Warcraft—The ideal terrain for studying avatars and their space?

16The data presented in this article was collected from the MMORPG World of Warcraft. Published by the California studio Blizzard Entertainment, this software invites the user to dive into a medieval fantasy world governed by magic and populated by extraordinary creatures. The first version of this game was released in 2004, and within just a few months, several million players had agreed to pay a monthly subscription fee (around 10 euros) to access it. World of Warcraft (often abbreviated to “WoW”) is not about following a fixed narrative thread that requires the protagonist to complete a finite mission, forcing the protagonist to follow the correct path, in order to solve and “finish” the game. Rather, like other MMORPGs, World of Warcraft offers a never-ending experience.

17Moreover, this world is an ever-evolving one, which benefits from important updates every 18 to 24 months. These “expansions” often involve the discovery of new territory, expanding the world’s existing geography. This system allows the game to stay refreshing and ensures that several million active users remain loyal, as they have for nearly twenty years. It is important to note that all of these users inhabit several World[s] of Warcraft, insofar as the studio decided to divide up avatars across several servers that can accommodate up to a certain number of individuals, in order to limit the risk of system crashes, or else manage them when they do occur. In this way, a given player cannot meet or interact with just any other user; users chances of meeting and interacting with others are limited to whichever server they find themselves on, as well as the time at which they log on.

18In order to explore this specific world, the player must create a “character”: their avatar. Thanks to this avatar, they will not only evolve in this purely digital world, but also interact with other users’ avatars inhabiting this digital space. Word of Warcraft provides a “massively multiplayer” experience; its gameplay involves cooperation between numerous avatars. This cooperation relies largely on the organization and composition of “dungeon” or “raid” groups. The idea behind these ephemeral groups, which usually last for several hours, is to create a force that can take down creatures too powerful for one avatar to face alone. Dungeons require the cooperation of five avatars, while raids require ten to 40 avatars. Certain groups can also be formed in a more lasting way, in which case they are called “guilds,” and provide groups in which avatars can convene to interact, share ideas and resources, and find companions who will join dungeons or raids.

19I chose this particular digital space for my study for two main reasons.

a) This MMORPG is remarkable in that its rare longevity brings together players on a consistent basis. World of Warcraft remains emblematic among this gaming genre, and gave me the opportunity to meet and interview users who frequently interact in this world and who have seen it evolve over many years.

b) Consequently, there is an abundance of recognized literature regarding this game, allowing any researcher to draw from a solid theoretical and conceptual foundation (Boellstorff et al., 2012; Coavoux, 2010; Ducheneaut et al., 2006; Nardi, 2010; Pearce et al., 2011; Taylor, 2006; Williams et al., 2006).

Ethnography of a digital space: theoretical context and observation methods

20To study this digital space and its inhabitants, I set up a triangular methodology anchored in:

a) an ethnography conducted in World of Warcraft

b) semi-structured formal and informal interviews with individuals (see my terminology)

c) an analysis of the most intense interactive moments captured through audiovisual recordings

21The ethnography took place over a span of more than thirty months between 2016 and 2018, during which time I met several hundred avatars and users, as well as dozens of guilds. More specifically, three guilds located on two different servers were studied over this period. The objective of this approach was to do everything possible to capture the various lived experiences of individuals and groups that do not presumably have common relationships, having evolved within different worlds depending on their distinct server.

  • 2 Many guilds write a “charter” consisting of rules that must be respected to ensure good relations b (...)

22The guilds I ended up observing, like all those I met, were organized hierarchically, and led by a group of “officers” chosen by existing officers or founding members. Their role was to organize the group, ensure harmony between members, enforce rules laid down by the guild,2 and suggest regular activities.

23From a demographic point of view, it is important to note that the guilds studied were composed of several hundred individuals, about 50 of whom were regularly active (logging on several times a week). They typically conducted raids two nights per week, for which members had to sign up. Then the officers had to choose which members could participate, compiling a group based on who was most likely to help defeat all the monsters that would appear during these raids.

24Throughout this ethnography, I sought to interact regularly with members of the various guilds in order to capture their lived experience. These exchanges took the form of informal interviews (without precise transcription, but with synchronous or later note-taking) and formal interviews (with precise transcription) with almost all of the members of these groups. The interviewees were organized around a thematic framework designed with three elements in mind, as identified by interactionism. I was interested in the lived experience of the individuals (ego), the relationships they had with other avatars (alter), and their ties to the digital space (place of interaction).

25Raid evenings proved to be moments of particularly intense interaction and communication between participants. However, seeing as these tasks required a high level of cognitive attention from us, I decided not to disrupt the smooth running of the event with inadequate note-taking, and went instead with audiovisual recordings of these evenings.

26All the same, when it came time to recall these evenings and derive notes from the audiovisual recordings, I found myself overwhelmed with an enormous amount of accumulated data—data that could prove enriching, were I to make use of it through a more detailed analysis. For this reason, I decided to perform a systematic analysis of sixty-three hours of raids within a single guild, which became my corpus (Ghoul Samson, 2018).

27The underlying aim of my approach was to be able to take in all the data contained in these recordings in one glance. To achieve this, I had to find a way to quantify the qualitative data in my possession. I decided to use the qualitative analysis software Atlas T.I., which allowed me to cut a document into fragments that could be freely encoded. I then fragmented the corpus of recordings into “interaction units” which could be encoded in a descriptive way, comprised of three essential pieces of information:

a) interactants from the aforementioned units

b) communication method used

c) subject of the interaction

28This objectified view of the raids, as well as the interactions that took place during them, allowed me to make very precise observations about the nature of the exchanges and interactions.

Understanding avatars’ independence and autonomy

29After analyzing the data collected during the ethnography, and considering the implemented hypothesis and theoretical context, I identified three main trends that could help me decide whether avatars’ interactions are directly capable of founding their own frame of reference, independent of the physical space.

Establishing a common identity in a guild and server

30Here I had the opportunity to examine how a guild functions, as well as its purpose in the context of an avatar’s experience of completing a raid. However, I must recall that these gatherings, founded ex nihilo in relation to the physical space, are literally ubiquitous in World of Warcraft; during the ethnography, I was able to meet and interact with several thousand avatars, the overwhelming majority of whom were affiliated with a guild. Those not in guilds had—in the majority of cases—undergone a reroll, that is, created a second avatar, in order to explore a whole new dimension of possibilities offered in the digital space. To this observed ubiquity I must add that the guilds’ central position is found equally in avatars’ narratives: avatars’ biographies are shaped in relation to their experiences with guilds. These groups are thus not only capable of uniting a large number of avatars around a single project, but also assist avatars in constructing and structuring their personal narrative.

I don’t remember how many guilds I joined on the first server, but on Sargeras I joined three overall. […] One when I got started, up until I reached the top level [...]. Then I joined my friends in their little guild [...]. We did a first raid, Kara. [... Next] I joined one of the biggest guilds on the server at the time.

C., Guild leader on the Sargeras server

31However, having a guild membership does not always produce positive feelings and experiences. All of the individuals interviewed stated that they felt some form of moral and social obligation to their guild. The main activity in this context also happens to be raids. Raids are crucial for the progression of avatars, and are traditionally organized in the evening (from 8 p.m. to midnight in the majority of cases), at a rate of two raids per week. This means that guild members agree to devote those particular evenings to the digital space (Bernard & Joule, 2004; Courbet et al., 2013), to the detriment of activities they could (or would have) had in the physical space.

Researcher: Have you ever felt a little pressured or forced to go on a raid?

E.: Yes.

Researcher: Yeah?

E.: Yeah, pretty often.

Researcher: And in those instances, you still went on a raid, or you didn’t go because you thought...

E.: Nah, I’d go, I’d go on them because… I’d say to myself that there are those of us who’re invested... Especially everyone who’s a raid lead. Some block off their whole evening for that. Some people have less time to play than I do, because they also have children.

E., Guild member on the Cho’Gall server

32From an interactionist perspective, a guild comes very close to the concept of a “team” (Goffman, 1973a) which facilitates the “definition of a situation” and participates in ensuring that interactions run smoothly. This explains the centrality of this organization’s form in the interactions studied.

33Lastly, it should be noted that beyond hosting guilds, the server also figures as a resource for users constructing the identity of their avatars. What began as simply a clever solution to an IT problem aiming to limit certain risks has transformed into a meaningful entity for the avatars. I observed the construction of attachment and loyalty towards the server. Even though some servers are less populated (and the avatars on them regularly have problems finding partners to go adventuring with), avatars show considerable resistance to the idea of changing servers. This computer software is therefore perceived to be the equivalent of a reassuring, comforting place, where over the weeks and months spent on the same server, avatars begin to know and recognize each other.

Actually, people get attached to the name of their server where they’ve spent time. For example, Cho’Gall, which is far from being the most populated server in the game, but on the forum... ‘Blizzard Cho’Gall,’ you’ve got a lot of people creating topics like ‘Hey, are the old Cho’Gall guys still here?’

A., Guild leader on the Cho’Gall server

34We can see that the guild and the server play a central role in constructing an avatar’s identity: they provide the spatiotemporal framework for the lived experience in the digital space. And yet, this framework is autonomous and entirely internal within the digital space; it does not rely on elements from the physical space in order to be formed.

Temporal anchoring within the digital space: an extensible experience

35Nostalgia is a feeling often associated with melancholy and an extended period of time. An individual may be nostalgic for a bygone era, a time that no longer exists, or a “golden age” (Niemeyer, 2016). To evoke this feeling in the context of analyzing a digital game space may therefore seem surprising. Yet, we will see that the relationship that avatars have to time is indeed a unique one, one which constantly works to build a comparison between what has been and what is.

  • 3 I should note that, in this case, nostalgia remains a matter of observation, but does not motivate (...)

36In fact, this nostalgia is expressed in various ways and on many occasions. It crops up in interviews without prompting, though it also appears in everyday exchanges, in the form of memories of past raids, past evenings, or experiences of time spent in other guilds. Avatars can take part in this nostalgia directly by referring to a past that they see as the heyday of the digital space,3 or indirectly by referring to changes they’ve noticed in the space which have led to a different experience between old and new avatars.

  • 4 “Alterac” is the name of a “battlefield” where avatars can compete against each other in teams.

Yeah, but back then, it wasn’t really the same. Back then it was truly the golden age of Alteracs,4 lasting ten hours. I remember, to give you an anecdote, having started an Alterac at eleven a.m. on a Saturday morning, and it went right into the evening and then I went to bed and got up the next day at eleven a.m. [...] and the same one that had been going the day before was still going. It was pretty crazy back then.

F., Guild officer on the Sargeras server

37The ten-year period separating the launch of World of Warcraft from the time in which this research was conducted demonstrates a unique longevity of this digital space. Consequently, when considering the avatars’ point of view as well as the average lifespan of other digital game spaces, we can regard that period of time as having been relatively long. It is almost as if the intense few months that comprised the time of an extension could be equated to the lifespan of a particular generation of players, during which time their avatars would briefly live. This temporal relativity provides an additional understanding with regard to the prevalent nostalgia. Moreover, when applying this temporal relativity to the relationship between avatars, it is possible to see how users who stopped playing add up to as many generations of avatars who, in a way, die. The remaining avatars thus become the witnesses of this absence, and together they commemorate shared moments they experienced with avatars that have disappeared.

38Avatars emerge through the possibility of founding strong relationships based on shared memories of other individuals or bygone eras. However, this capacity to temporally anchor relationships is not synonymous with a context solely oriented toward the past. Indeed, over the course of the ethnography I encountered several individuals who had met up in the physical world after having first met in the digital space, some of whom even began romantic relationships as a result of shared experiences in World of Warcraft. And yet, all of the individuals who spoke about these situations described them as the continuation of a relationship, rather than an introductory encounter. While they were sometimes surprised by the physical appearance of the user behind the avatar, having projected their own mental image of that person onto the user only to discover it differed from reality, they agreed on the fact that moving from the digital space to a physical space occurred naturally.

People are pretty natural, as far as personalities go. There’s no reason for that to change fundamentally between IRL [“in real life”] and the game, because in the end it’s the same; we’re playing with other people, not characters.

O., Guild leader on the Cho’Gall server

Raids and rituals

39We have thus far shown the importance of raids through the structuring role they play in unifying avatars around common goals, even if they may become restrictive for individuals. The central role of this activity prompted me to film it in a systematic way. When analyzing the data from these recordings, I expected to find rich and varied interactions, but I found myself faced with the opposite situation.

Table 1. Representation of interaction units during audiovisual recordings

Table 1. Representation of interaction units during audiovisual recordings

40The table above shows the importance of each theme present in the 10,409 interaction units analyzed from the corpus comprised of 63 hours of raids. The first thing I can see from this data is that 49.64% of interactions involve the “RL” theme. Short for raid lead, this theme corresponds to interactions in which the raid leader addressed the group to guide them during the raid (speaking of things like what strategy to use to defeat a creature, what passage to take, etc.). These addresses therefore do not really require feedback from other members of the group. Since I was interested in moments of engagement and communication between avatars, raids seemed to be a weak source in this regard.

41The second thing to note when looking at this table is that all themes including physical space (highlighted in yellow) represent only 2.49% of interactions. However, the fact that 97.51% of interactions taking place in the digital space can happen without needing to make any reference to the physical space requires further analysis.

42When combining these statistical elements with the particular spatiotemporal anchoring, and with the relationship to time that avatars establish during their adventures in the digital space, it is possible to see raids as occupying the function of a ritual. I refer to this concept from an interactionist perspective, which is to say that a ritual is a particular type of interaction allowing a group to celebrate its existence (commemoration) and remind its members that they form a whole (communion). In this respect, the raid becomes above all an opportunity for avatars in the same guild to remember that their union is based both on their shared history and their ability to face (all together) any difficulties arising from the digital space. Each raid appears to be both a moment to celebrate the group and to commemorate it. What is at stake is the renewal of the avatars’ commitment, which unites them. The ritualistic dimension is of particular interest here, since it would explain how actions and interactions taking place during a raid are decided, expected, and repeated.


43This article puts forth the possibility of reconsidering the avatar (inhabiting the digital space) as a relatively independent and autonomous communicational figure, distinct from the user (inhabiting the physical space). To test this hypothesis, I analyzed spatiotemporal reference points that individuals use to construct their identity (in relation to themselves and to others), as well as their sustained conception and relationship to time. Finally, it is evident from an interactional point of view that avatars’ main activity, namely raids, are rather utilitarian and poor sources for my research, yet in taking on the function of a rite, work to reinforce unity within the guilds.

44It is important to note that this perspective is not insignificant, insofar as a ritual, according to Durkheim (2014) and Goffman (1974), functions to allow communication to move beyond a natural state and establish lasting groups. If avatars are able to establish and continue performing rituals that remain distinct from and uncorrelated to physical space, then it can be argued that the avatar is a communicative and interactional entity with a certain degree of independence and autonomy. These factors would work to validate the hypothesis proposed at the beginning of this article—a theory which merits greater research, and ought to be taken up by scholars in other fields.

45This theory urges us to reconsider the avatar from at least two new perspectives. The first perspective encourages us to disregard the characteristically asymmetrical relationship often presumed to take place between avatar and user, and to consider a more permeable relationship instead, one where user and avatar mutually influence each other. The second perspective invites us to rethink the avatar’s function: if the avatar is capable of an autonomous and independent form, then it cannot be reduced to a simple vessel allowing movement through the digital space. The avatar influences and modifies the perspective that the user has upon entering this space, and in return, may even have an influence on the user’s life within the physical space (Chollet, 2015).

Figure 1

Figure 1

La guilde “Le Peuple des Barrens”, après avoir vaincu un “boss” d’un raid.

Figure 2

Figure 2

Affrontement en cours contre un “boss” de raid, avec la guilde “UpRise.“

Figure 3

Figure 3

Affrontement en cours contre un “boss” de raid, avec la guilde ”Le Peuple des Barrens.”

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1 Émile Durkheim offers a functional analysis of the waning role of religion in society, according to which, rituals provide a social function of cohesion within a group, as well as between social groups. This phenomenon of reciprocal sacralization was widely taken up in sociology until the study of religion began to wane in the 1960s.

2 Many guilds write a “charter” consisting of rules that must be respected to ensure good relations between the different members.

3 I should note that, in this case, nostalgia remains a matter of observation, but does not motivate avatars to leave the digital space.

4 “Alterac” is the name of a “battlefield” where avatars can compete against each other in teams.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Table 1. Representation of interaction units during audiovisual recordings
Fichier image/jpeg, 564k
Titre Figure 1
Légende La guilde “Le Peuple des Barrens”, après avoir vaincu un “boss” d’un raid.
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Titre Figure 2
Légende Affrontement en cours contre un “boss” de raid, avec la guilde “UpRise.“
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Titre Figure 3
Légende Affrontement en cours contre un “boss” de raid, avec la guilde ”Le Peuple des Barrens.”
Fichier image/png, 1,9M
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Jacques Ghoul Samson, « Challenging the asymmetry of online interactions between humans and avatars in an online video game space: a unique example of relative independence and autonomy »Hybrid [En ligne], 9 | 2022, mis en ligne le 30 novembre 2022, consulté le 29 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Jacques Ghoul Samson

Jacques Ghoul Samson is an associate professor at the University of Toulon and a researcher at the Mediterranean Institute of Information and Communication Sciences (IMSIC). His research primarily concerns interactions taking place in digital spaces, online ethnography, and the video game industry. He is particularly interested in exploring the borders between physical and digital spaces, as well as game streaming.

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-SA 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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